Attachment, Autonomy And

Attachment, Autonomy And

Justice, Attachment and Natural Resources[1]

Chris Armstrong, University of Southampton

Forthcoming in Journal of Political Philosophy, 2013.


This paper investigates the significance, from the point of view of egalitarian justice, of patterns of attachment to natural resources. Section I establishes what is at stake in arguments about attachment as a source of special claims over resources. Section II shows why, by contrast to the view associated with Charles Beitz, for instance, attachment over natural resources should be taken seriously by egalitarians. But even if egalitarians should take attachment seriously, it is not clear just how and whether they could accommodate important attachments whilst also holding firm to their egalitarian commitments. Section III,however, provides an account of just how egalitarians can accommodate good attachment-based claims within their accounts of justice, and also spells out the implications of that accommodation for theories of global justice. Section IV considers but rejects an alternative account of how we should accommodate attachments, and concludes by arguing that egalitarianism contains far greater resources for taking important attachments seriously than we might otherwise suppose.

I. Theorising Attachment

On the assumption that they are simply ‘there,’ with no-one responsible for creating them, theorists of justice have often suggested that we all have symmetrical general claims on the world’s natural resources,[2] of either a sufficientarian or egalitarian character.[3] But an adequate account of natural resource justice will also recognise and respond to special claims, which come in two varieties. Special claims based on improvement seek to ground certain rights over a natural resource on the way in which an agent has increased its value. Even if no-one has created a particular natural resource, acting on it so as to render it more valuable plausibly grounds a special claim to at least a portion of the income from it.[4]

But though it has received much greater attention, it is not only improvement that is capable of generating special claims over natural resources. Indeed the claim that it is only productive use of land or resources which can generate good claims has an ignoble history, inasmuch as it has been used to justify dispossessing indigenous peoples from land or resources which they have inhabited or interacted with, but not used ‘productively.’[5]Assuming that an account which only considered special claims based on improvement wouldbe an impoverished one, this paper will considera second kind of special claim,in this case premised upon ‘attachment.’ Attachment-based claims seek to ground rights over resources on the close relationship which some agents have formed with specific resources, developing life-plans which depend upon secure access to them. For this project to be worthwhile, we do not need to assume that claims from attachment and improvement will always be entirely separate. It may often be the casein practice that the same agent hasboth improved, and become attached to, a specific natural resource, thereby generating overlapping special claims over it. But this will not always be the case. A poor miner might work hard to extract coal from a coal-seam – thereby generating a special claim based on improvement – but feel no attachment to that coal, and indeed disdain his career as a miner, and wish to change his job at the earliest opportunity. On the other hand someone might become attached to a resource without improving it. A Hindu might place great store in the expectation that on his death his ashes will be scattered on the Ganges; aChristian might place great store by her ability to baptise her children in the water of the Jordan. Neither will ‘improve’ either river from an economic point of view. If there are cases where improvement-based claims areweakor non-existent but significant attachment to a resource nevertheless exists, we need to know whether separate moral claims can derive from such attachment, and what force those claims might have. If we can identify such claims, it will thereby become more obvious, for instance, why the dispossession of indigenous peoples was, and is, objectionable.

If the conventional account which focusessolely on economic improvement – and is often associated with Locke[6] - appears unduly restrictive in its implications for judging resource claims, one prominent alternative – the conventional Kantian account of ‘provisional right’ – appears under-determined. On Kant’s account, we can obtain a provisional claim over an object simply by declaring our will to control it, at the same time as declaring our willingness to submit that claim to the adjudication of a civil (and, ultimately, cosmopolitan) political authority. That account does not place any further conditions on what constitutes a valid claim over an object. Lea Ypi has recently suggested that the Kantian account can afford to be ‘ecumenical with regard to how groups of people end up occupying specific geographical areas’ – or, perhaps, controlling particular objects; Kantians can accept improvement-based criteria, or attachment-based ones, or indeed any criteria so long as the claims arising under the various accounts share the crucial commitment to binding authority.[7] But Kant’s account is able to be ecumenical precisely because it is so undemanding. The emphasis on the need to generate political authority means that Kant’s account will grant claims just wherever the declared will to control an object exists, along with the willingness to commend that claim to final adjudication by a higher political authority, and independent of any relationship of attachment or improvement.

The Kantian account has several significant limitations. First, whilst it might provide us with guidance on how to treat claims generated prior to the establishment of civil authority, it does not provide us with any guidance on how to deal with special claims arising once a civil authority actually exists. Once the civil condition exists, the account simply tells us that property rights are confirmed, but also possibly constrained, by the rightful civil authority – but we lack criteria for how they ought to be constrained. Second, the connection between the need to establish civil authority, on the one hand, and the (highly permissive) criterionsupplied for judging valid claims, on the other, is rather underdetermined. If we assume that transition to a civil condition is morally necessary then it is certainly plausible to consider it a necessary condition of valid claims over objects that claimants express a willingness for those claims to be bound by some future civil authority. What is simply not obvious is why we should consider that willingness to be bound by civil authority a sufficient condition (or, to be more precise, a condition which, alongside the will to control an object, is jointly sufficient) for judging a claim to be valid. The focus on the importance of submission to a binding authority does not prevent us from qualifying such claims in additional ways.

On this latter score the conventional Kantian account does not seem to provide a satisfying account of when a morally weighty claim has been made. The fact that I merely will to control something, regardless of any other features of my relationship with it, is a very undiscriminating basis on which to grant rights over resources. If I simply declare a wish to control the oil buried under the ground on the island where I live, ought we to place any weight on that claim? At the very least, we will presumably want to place some constraint on how much of my island’s oil I can control. But more importantly, why grant even prima facie claims to control resources with which I have had no relationship at all, other than willing to control them?[8]

The best foundation for attachment-based claims on resources is likely to be one which focuses on the conditions for the pursuit of significant individual life-plans. Any plausible account of justice will consider it important that we are able to see ourselves as at least jointly directing our own lives, making our own plans for life which we in turn have some prospect of achieving. On Rawls’s account, that will require justified confidence in our ability to develop our talents and to exercise them, so that one’s ends fall within the realm of the reasonably attainable.[9] It will require, in addition, the basic liberties necessary for pursuing our various projects. And it will also have material preconditions: at the very least, we will need secure access to the objects of our basic rights. And an egalitarian account will specify more demanding material prerequisites, constrainingtolerable material inequalities in a variety of ways. If we accept that, we have grounds for specifying general claims to various material resources, including natural resources. These will be general in the sense that we all possess such claims simply as human beings, and insofar as we are all capable of generating life-plans that ought to matter.

But what of special claims? Special claims over natural resources will be particular in two ways: they will be claims which only some of us possess, because of our precise relationship with natural resources. And they will also be particular in the sense that they apply to specific natural resources. By this we mean not specific kinds, but specific instances or ‘tokens’ of natural resources. An attachment-based justification for special claims over natural resources will emphasise the way in which we sometimes form life-plans which depend upon continued secure access to specific resources. If they are to be successful, attachment-based claims will be claims which cannot be met, at least without irretrievable loss, merely by providing equivalent shares of other resources.

Such arguments should also appeal to egalitarians. Take welfare egalitarianism, for instance. A welfare egalitarian will care about resources precisely insofar as they fuel human wellbeing, in their various ways; resources matter, derivatively in that sense, inasmuch as they are important to the success of the various projects that matter to us. But if so, he or she has good reason to pay heed to any information we might have about how particular resources are important to us. At the very least, information about attachments ought to be seen as valuable data for those seeking to promote welfare. More strongly, the presence of attachment to resources produces a defeasible reason for granting the so attached continued access to them.

Notably, contemporary Locke scholars have offered support for such a view, arguing for a move away from a focus on either improvement or ‘labour-mixing’ as the only basis for special claims over resources, and suggesting instead (or in addition) that special claims can be granted wherever an individual integrates an object into what Simmons calls her ‘purposive projects.’[10]Given the centrality that objects can come to play in our life-plans, we have a prima facie reason not to reallocate those objects lightly.Some contemporary Kantians have also given support to this kind of account. In her(ostensibly Kantian) defence of rights of ‘occupancy’ over land, Anna Stilz suggests that there is a good prima facie claim for someone to continue to occupy land whereverthat someone has incorporated access to that land into their life-plans, such that occupancy becomes ‘fundamental to the integrity of his structure of personal relationships, goals, and pursuits.’[11] Individuals may have used land as part of their projects, of what gives their lives meaning and makes it valuable to them. In particularwe ought to focus on those life plans which are ‘comprehensive’ rather than ‘peripheral’ – which ‘structure many of our goals and choices, and are fundamental to our sense of ourselves as self-determining authors of our lives.’[12]

To date, though, defences of this type of view have focused on control over land. Stilz’s account, for instance,focuses on the wrong of removing peoples from the land they inhabit, but does not apply the argument to natural resources. But the fact that natural resources are in principle removable from land means that we can intelligibly ask questions about whether rights over each should be allocated separately. Many natural resources (such as freshwater, fish, wild animals and possibly even oil) are not tied to a particular piece of land but are rather ‘fugacious.’ Even where resources are not fugacious, grounding claims to them purely in prior claims to land would leave us vulnerable to the challenge that if resource x could be removed without harming the integrity of the land (for instance, by some high-tech horizontal mining technology), any resource claims would then dissipate. To deliver a robust case we ought to investigate claims which are directly grounded in relationships with resources, rather than dependent on prior claims over land. There is, in any case, an increasing recognition that rights over natural resources cannot simply be extrapolated from the territorial right to govern a particular geographical area (or even from putative rights to occupy land). In that case, as David Miller puts it, rather than simply assuming that rights to exercise jurisdiction over territory, resources and membership need to be held together, ‘The relationship between the three sets of rights should be regarded as an open question.’[13]This paper will investigate whether an attachment-based account can be extended to the case of natural resources, and on finding that it can, will set out some of the implications for the way in which we should integrate general and special claims within a broader account of resource justice.

II. Attachment, Life-Plans and Natural Resources

There are many casesin which individuals have formulated life-plans which are dependent upon secure access to particular natural resources.The most compelling instances are probably those in which members[14] of certain relatively small-scale groups have formed a close and enduring relationship with resources which have become key to central and enduring practices, and where thatrelationship is both sustainable, and non-substitutable in the way that it supports individual life-plans. Where access to specific resources is integral to one’s way of life and indeed one’ssense of self in this way, it is plausible to say that a fundamental interest in the preservation of one’s way of life generates a prima facie – but defeasible – claim to at least continued access to those resources. The resources in question must be specifically valuable, though,such that they are not straightforwardly substitutable as supports for life-plans. For a good claim to exist over these trees, it should not be the case that other trees would serve the purposes of a given individual without discernable shortfall. It must be the case that in carrying out his life-plans access to anything other than these trees would be, to him, a (possibly very poor) second best.[15]

Some might still find attachment implausible, by itself, as an independent source of special claims. If no improvement has occurred, why then grant rights over resources? Why should I be able to ground a claim over a resource, simply as a result of developing an expectation that I will be able to access it, and then developing life-plans to match? We need to give serious attention to the suspicion that attachment to a resource is too weak a normative consideration to generate a claim to exercise rights over it. In his well-known discussion of the moral arbitrariness of resource distribution, for instance, Charles Beitz gives grounds for just such suspicion. He suggests that the argument from attachment to resources to rights over them was even more tenuous than the argument from the possession of talents to a right to the economic rewards attendant on such talents which Rawls had earlier done so much to unsettle. Specifically, he suggests that:

‘It would be inappropriate to take the sort of pride in the diamond deposits in one’s back yard that one takes in the ability to play the Appassionata…talents, in some sense, are what the self is; they help constitute personality. The resources under one’s feet, because they lack this natural connection with the self, seem more like contingent than necessary elements in the development of personality.’[16]

The reason that pride in the diamond deposits in one’s back yard is inappropriate, to be clear, is thatpride is (something like) a justified satisfaction with one’s character or abilities, given that character and ability are elements of the self which we often deserve credit for cultivating. By contrast natural resources- such as the diamonds in one’s back yard- ‘lack [a] natural connection with the self.’[17] Or, to put it another way, when the Rector in George Eliot’s Middlemarch asserts that ‘It is a very good quality in a man to have a trout stream,’ we ought to take this as one of Eliot’s many jokes.[18] The connection between personality and the possession of diamonds or trout streams is simply too weak, for Beitz, for concern with the formerto justify rights over the latter.If we are at all tempted by the argument that talent is a morally arbitrary basis for distribution, we ought to apply that argument a fortiori to natural resources.

But Beitz’s claim repays closer attention. He suggests that, by contrast to the kind of pride it is appropriate to take in playing the Appassionata, it would be inappropriate to take pride in one’s relationship with natural resources - given that one has, by hypothesis, done little or nothing to actively nurture them, and given that they are not, unlike talents, actually ‘constitutive of the self.’ Now that first clause is too quick, for of course a particular resource may well have been developed and improved, even in the autarkic world Beitz supposes in that part of his argument. But the second clause initially appears more secure. It does look to be a distinctive feature of talents that they are internal to the self, or constitutive of the self as Beitz puts it. However,consider again the Appassionata example. Imagine that Sophie has invested her whole being in playing that piece, and that now she can do it she thinks about herself in a different way – she appraises herself more positively as a person capable of cultivating her abilities and sensibilities, and she has a real sense of living within a musical tradition. Now that talent is always going to be vulnerable in certain ways (which is another way of saying that it has preconditions which are capable of being threatened). Sophie might injure her hands, and be unable to play any longer. Likewise if Sophie’s piano was taken from her – or if she was forbidden from playing any piano – she would be unable to exercise her talent. Whilst not directly deprived of her talent, she would be deprived of a crucial object for its exercise, and we would also expect her talent itself to suffer in time. If so, the loss to her sense of self, and her sense that she had skilfully brought her life-plans closer to fruition, could be just as acute as if she hadinjured her hands. Her control over her talent and her control over her piano – or, failing that, a substitute piano – are both crucial to her continuing to experience her sense of agency, and to the fulfilment of a project which is central to her life. Although there are some talents which do not obviously depend on control over external objects for their expression (like dancing, or singing, for example), there are many talents which are dependent for their exercise on secure access to objects such as musical instruments, sports equipment, vehicles, and so on.